Tim Kaine’s history lesson

Lost amidst all of the other good news from the 2016 elections was the fact that Tim Kaine didn’t get to be vice president. Unfortunately, he’s still a U.S. Senator.

Today, Kaine took to the Senate floor to declare that “the United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody, we created it.” This statement brought down a torrent of ridicule. Perhaps the funniest response is this piece by Megan Fox at PJ Media. Here’s a typical line:

[Kaine’s] claim sent shockwaves of outrage through the recesses of Hell, where Egyptian pharaohs and the emperors of Rome reside. “How dare he take credit for slavery,” said King Tut. “Who the hell does he think built the pyramids? Aliens?”

Actually, Kaine’s statement isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. As Kaine also said:

The first African Americans sent into the English colonies came to Point Comfort in 1619. They were slaves, they had been captured against their will, but they landed in colonies that didn’t have slavery — there were no laws about slavery in the colonies at that time.

I think that’s right. If so, it’s true that the colonists (as Kaine should have said, not “the United States,” which did not exist in 1619) didn’t inherit slavery and could have decided not to institute it. They didn’t create slavery, of course, but they created a system of slave labor in the colonies.

However, eschewing slave labor as the colonies developed and organized their economies would have represented a break with common practice throughout the world, including in North America. Bryan Dean Wright pointed out that “many warring Native American tribes captured each other & enslaved the survivors, well before the arrival of Europeans and tribes later enslaved Africans, establishing slave codes to protect ‘property rights.'”

My response to Kaine’s comment is: So what? What follows from the fact that the colonists didn’t inherit slavery, but instead instituted it 400 years ago.

I don’t think anything follows. Keeping an existing slave system would have been just as wrong as instituting one. Moreover, lots of peoples could have done lots of things differently and thereby avoided lots of hardship and evil. We can’t undo these things, and certainly not the ones that occurred centuries ago.

Kaine has proposed a series of measures to benefit African-Americans including some sort of commission to study “reparations.” I think reparations are a terrible idea.

In any case, the merit of studying or granting reparations and the merit of any of Kaine’s other proposals have nothing to do with whether the colonists inherited slavery. His proposals would be equally wise (or unwise) if the colonists had continued a preexisting system of slavery, rather than imposed their own.

Tim Kaine may not deserve all of the ridicule he received today, but he deserves plenty.